I decided over the summer that my family has received so much from Glacier National Park over the last 22 years that we really needed to give more back. So, we decided to donate all the profits from this book to the Glacier Conservancy. The Conservancy does great things for the park each year including funding the rebuilding of trails, Bull Trout conservation, Black Swift and Harlequin Duck research, the Native America Speaks program, and a huge number of other things.
A bit of news about the book. It is currently for sale on Amazon and is in several book stores around the park and in Kalispell and Whitefish. And, as of a few days ago it finally received clearance to be sold within the park. Of course that will have to wait until next summer... There were also several articles written about the Book and my family:
A nice article in the Flathead Beacon.
A book review in Washington State Magazine.
And, a really nice front page article that isn't online in my local paper, the Zionsville Sentinel.
Thanks to all for the support!
I really like this hike, but only early in the morning. It’s important to get there early because it is packed after 11 a.m. during the height of the summer season. You will walk primarily through the 2015 Reynolds Creek burn, which is interesting in itself. But, there are also amazing waterfalls, slot canyons, beautiful rock gardens, mossy cliffs, old spruce and fir and towering vantage points from which to view St. Mary Lake. Along with the great views of the mountains that the burnt trees allow, you also have excellent views of birds. Often in the forest, if you hear a bird it can be very difficult to find it. Here in the burn, it is much easier. Watch also for nest holes of woodpeckers and Tree Swallows.
Park at Sunrift Gorge and walk up the short trail to see the long slot canyon. The rushing water tends to be rather loud, so finding birds here is difficult. Dusky Flycatcher and others are possible here. American Dippers are probable along much of this hike that parallels river courses or where there are waterfalls. Dippers love these fast rushing rivers that provide good habitat for the insect nymphs and larvae they feed on. Listen for their almost cricket-like flight call and watch for a slate-gray fat little bird cruising up or down the river.
Head down and under the bridge toward the first of the three falls, Baring Falls. As you go under the bridge, look up and notice the soda straw structures. These are geologic features often found in caves that form when water picks up, then deposits minerals as it drips from the ceiling. The soda straw gets longer as water flows through the middle of the straw and hangs in an evaporating droplet on the tip. That droplet slowly evaporates, leaving minerals and thus a longer soda straw behind. When the middle of the straw gets plugged for any reason, the water will flow along the outside of the soda straw, depositing minerals along the way and creating a stalactite.
For most of this hike you will walk through the 2015 burn, however, you will find some living spruce-fir forest containing Douglas fir and lodgepole pine. Young lodgepole pine, spruce and fir trees will begin growing over the next few years. The understory is loaded with dogbane, thimbleberry, huckleberry, red twinberry, Rocky Mountain maple and a great diversity of wildflowers such as yarrow, arnica, twisted stalk, false Solomon’s seal, birch-leaf spirea and others. All the dead trees mean good insect habitat, which means a buffet for insect eating birds. As you are heading down (and I mean down; it’s steep!) the winding trail toward Baring Falls, enjoy the beautiful views while watching for Dusky Flycatcher, Olive-sided Flycatcher, Swainson’s Thrush, Warbling Vireo, Macgillivray’s Warbler, and Wilson’s Warbler. Check out the hummingbirds going after the nectar in the twisted stalk flowers. They are pollinators of the bell-shaped, single flowers hanging from each axil of this plant.
Take a right at the junction and you will quickly reach Baring Falls where you should spend some time at the shore watching for American Dippers. Scan the rocks by the water at the base of the falls, then downstream. There is often a dipper nest near where the water actually falls. Sometimes it is right behind the veil of water, so you may see an American Dipper fly through the water of the falls as it exits its nest. Scan especially the rocks near the falls for nests. Dipper nests are typically made of moss and lichens and will usually look like a light- or mustard-brown dome. If you do get lucky and see the American Dipper family, spend some time watching. It’s not often you get to see birds flying under water unless you are in the Antarctic watching penguins. And besides, the red, green and tan rock make this a really beautiful waterfall.
Grizzly and Black Bears began using the burned area immediately after the fire. In spring 2016, a couple female grizzlies were trapped and given collars as part of an ongoing study of breeding success and mortality. One was well over twenty years old with teeth worn down to the gums. She was bony, scrawny with bad hear and hip bones protruding due to muscle loss from advanced age. Amazingly, the old girl had a cub of the year with her. Our bears tend to have pretty bad teeth thanks to the fact that 15% of their total diet is candy: Huckleberries!
After leaving Baring Falls you’ll take a short walk down to the boat dock. Scan the lake then continue around the cliffs and up the trail. Here comes the prettiest stretch of trail. As you climb, there will be gorgeous, mossy cliffs on the upslope side of the trail covered with wildflowers such as yarrow, mariposa lily, ragwort, paintbrush, columbine, and shooting stars. Listen for the raspy Robin-like song of the Western Tanager and find the singer. The sight of the gorgeous yellow, red and black bird will be worth the effort. As you get higher and higher above St. Mary Lake, the trail has several high cliffy viewing points where you are hundreds of feet up, looking almost straight down at the lake. In some spots you could take a big swan-dive down into the lake, but I don’t recommend it. These are fantastic wildflower rock-gardens loaded with buckwheat, blue penstemon, ragwort, desert parsley, chokecherry, paintbrush, stonecrop, mariposa lily, common yarrow, spotted saxifrage and blue-pod lupine. These are also great birding spots for scanning the lake for waterfowl, scanning the trees around the lake (especially at the inlet) for Bald Eagle, and looking into the tops of trees below you for songbirds. At these gaps look in the tops of trees for Hairy Woodpecker, Dusky Flycatcher, Olive-sided Flycatcher, Mountain Bluebird, Red-breasted Nuthatch, Warbling Vireo, Yellow-rumped Warbler and Chipping Sparrow. Then, watch for Calliope and Rufous Hummingbirds going after nectar in paintbrush and other flowers.
There are two Saint Mary cutoff trails that bring you back up to the road, but take the left fork to keep going toward St. Mary Falls. Between those two junctions is the best of the high spots overlooking St. Mary Lake. Definitely take out your trail mix and sit down with your wildflower guide and hang out for a while as you watch birds in the treetops at eye-level.
As you continue walking, enjoy the view of massive Virginia Falls across the valley through the burned trees. Back in the burn, watch and listen for Black-backed Woodpecker, American Three-toed Woodpecker, Northern Flicker, Hairy Woodpecker, Rufous Hummingbird, Olive-sided Flycatcher, Red-breasted Nuthatch, House Wren, Swainson’s Thrush, Warbling Vireo, Northern Waterthrush, Yellow Warbler, Wilson’s Warbler, MacGillivray’s Warbler, Yellow-rumped Warbler, Black-headed Grosbeak, Western Tanager, and Dark-eyed Junco. Also watch for Hawk Owls.
Then you are at St. Mary Falls—a spectacular, powerful two-tier falls with a massive amount of water flowing over it. The swirling, churning water below the bridge makes you instinctively hang on to your kids and pull out your camera. Oh, and watch for American Dippers. In 2016, the nest was just to the right of the second level of the falls. It was a rusty clump of vegetation just above green moss no more than a foot or two from the raging water.
Walking around the corner you’ll start going uphill toward Virginia Falls. After about 200 yards you leave the burn and enter a tall spruce and fir forest with thimbleberry, purple virgin’s bower and beargrass understory. It’s a good idea to listen for Pacific Wren, Varied Thrush, Wilson’s Warbler, and Townsend’s Warbler along the stretch between Virginia and St. Mary Falls. Golden-crowned Kinglet, Swainson’s Thrush and, if you are lucky, White-winged Crossbill are all possible here. Also, take advantage of the few great places to view the cascading river along the way to the big falls, always looking for American Dippers and staying away from any wet rock. This would be a great spot to have lunch or a snack. And, while you are resting, notice the Grinnell argillite (rusty red rock) and look for ripples preserved in the rock that were formed in the ancient, one-billion-year-old sea bed.
When you get to the first sign for Virginia Falls, go ahead and cross the bridge and enjoy the view from the rocks on the far side. While you are there, notice the “fossilized” mud cracks in the billion year-old rock at your feet.
Definitely take the last short walk up to the viewing area for Virginia Falls. It is worth it just to get a feel deep in your gut for the power of the water crashing over the falls. You will be impressed. And you will likely get a bit wet from the spray, so hide your optics under your arm.
After 21 years of birding in Glacier and about three years of blood, sweat, and swearing. Glacier is for the Birds; a Trail Guide to the Birds of Glacier National Park is finally here. It is a trail guide covering 48 trails, roads, or other locations with details on what you will find along the way. It focuses on birds first and foremost with descriptions of where to find over 170 species. It also covers plants, geology, mammals, basic ecology, and recommendations for what to do, where to do it, and when. It's written conversationally because it's meant to be a substitute for when you can't just have me walk along the trails with you. It's meant for people who like (or think they might like) birds, but it can also take the place of a more universal trail guide because of all the other good, non-avian information, not to mention the 55 maps, it contains.
Within the trail descriptions are 42 informational boxes giving facts and ideas about such topics as the importance of a fungus to cavity nesting birds, historic fire regimes and how GNP deals with fire, Darwin's ideas on species, beaver as restoration ecologists, giardia, moose, and several covering geology. An appendix gives suggestions for what to do if you only have one day, if you need to stay near your car, or if you love to hike. In the intro I talk about how humans are actually more similar to birds than to other mammals in some important ways and I give tips for birdwatching in Glacier, especially given there are big, furry mammals with sharp teeth traipsing about.
It's already on Amazon, but if you are going to buy it, I'd prefer you purchase it here: https://www.createspace.com/6249233.
Picture in your mind a farmer’s field that was left fallow for a year. What would you expect to see growing? Weeds, mostly. Right? How about after 5 years? Maybe some shrubs and small trees? 50 years? A young forest, perhaps? In one hundred years you’ll likely see a mature forest and in 500 years, probably a different forest type altogether – the “climax” forest. This process is called succession and all landscapes go through it. The pattern and speed of the succession may differ among locations, and there may not truly be any set endpoint or “climax” for any particular area. But, you get the idea.
What natural disturbances like fire, flood, avalanche, and tornadoes do is knock succession back a few “seral stages,” a few years, tens of years, or even hundreds of years. Take fire, for instance. Some fires are hot enough that they can take a mature forest and bring it back to, basically, bare dirt. Here in Glacier, avalanches tend to take mature forest and convert it to shrubs. Even bear digs are a natural disturbance. These are areas that look like a rototiller has gone through. It’s just bears digging up roots and bulbs. They take a meadow and return it to dirt. Dirt that has been nicely seeded with the plants they turned over.
You call them “natural disasters” back home, but these natural disturbances are the reason you go to a place like Glacier National Park! You could have just gone to the zoo in your home town or an arboretum or botanical garden. That would have been much easier than coming all the way out here! But you didn’t. Why? Because something is happening here. There are processes. It is a system. There are interactions. Ecology.
Natural disturbances are part of that process and a part that creates the diversity of habitats that we birders love. The reason why Glacier has an amazingly high number of breeding bird species is, in part, those disturbances. We have been taught by Disney to cherish the “balance of nature.” There is no true balance, there is constant change and chaos. And life has evolved to deal with and take advantage of this lack of balance.
Below are drafts of two of the over 50 maps contained in Glacier is for the Birds. They were designed following the KISS principle in an attempt to make them useful, but uncluttered.
Black-headed Grosbeak are big, robin-sized birds that are a gorgeous combination of Black, yellow and orange. They are so striking that people often confuse them with Orioles. They also have a long and loud song, like a whistling Robin, that they will sing over and over. So, how is it that they can hide so well? You can hear the bird and know it is “just right there!” But, then you can look for ages, initially intrigued, then more and more annoyed as they continue to evade detection.
This relatively common phenomenon brings up a couple of interesting topics. Natural selection has caused these brightly colored birds to evolve adaptations to avoid detection by predators. Only the males that successfully avoid being eaten end up passing their genes on to the next generation. So, they tend to sit still while singing, making sighting them more difficult. Their songs also are difficult to localize. They often sound much closer and higher up then they actually are – they throw their voices.
This then brings up the question of how can evolution cause these birds to avoid detection on the one hand and yet be brightly colored and loud on the other. The simple answer is that natural selection is not the only mechanism of evolution. Survival doesn’t automatically cause your genes to make it into the next generation. You also have to reproduce. So, behaviors and characteristics that help females find you and recognize you as a particularly studly male (e.g. bright coloration and long, loud song) will be passed on in greater abundance to the next generation.
Just because they are brightly colored doesn’t mean they are easy to see.
The Two Medicine area has some of the best hiking and birding in Glacier National Park. Cobalt Lake up to Two Medicine Pass is one of my favorite trails, with jaw-dropping scenery, fields of flowers, and the potential, if you have the energy, to get up into the alpine with the possibility of seeing American Pipit, Rock Wren, Timberline Brewer's Sparrow, Gray-crowned Rosy-Finch and, perhaps, White-tailed Ptarmigan.
This trail description starts at the junction of the South Shore Two Medicine Trail (described elsewhere) and the Two Medicine Pass trail, about 2.6 miles from the boat dock parking area at Two Medicine Lake. From the junction it’s another 3.2 miles up to the lake.
The first stretch of the Two Medicine Pass Trail brings you along the base of Mt. Sinopah where there is spruce-fir forest with several avalanche chutes. In the trees look for Mountain Chickadee, Golden-crowned Kinglet, Yellow-rumped Warbler, Western Tanager, Pine Siskin and others.
The shrubby habitat of the avalanche chutes is pretty in its own right. Because there are few mature trees standing, these chutes have a lot of light making them great for shrubs, berries and a variety of wildflowers. Macgillivray’s and Tennessee Warbler, Black-headed Grosbeak, Lazuli Bunting, Chipping Sparrow and others prefer this type of shrubby habitat to the forest.
Once out of the avalanche chutes you will enter a short spruce-fir forest with some lodgepole and an understory of huckleberry and false huckleberry. Listen for Varied Thrush and Yellow-rumped Warbler. Rockwell Falls is neither the biggest nor easiest to view, but here you are and it is an exquisite falls anyway. Have a quick snack and then it’s switchbacks, making your way up into the hanging valley that contains Cobalt Lake. Stop along the way and enjoy the inspiring view back toward Two Medicine Lake. Olive-sided Flycatcher, Varied Thrush, Hermit Thrush, Fox Sparrow and Chipping Sparrow are in this area along with lots of bear-grass and pink spirea as the forest gets shorter and more open.
Once you are up in the hanging valley you’ll continue to walk next to the river coming from Cobalt Lake. As you get higher there is the possibility of Dusky Flycatcher, Pacific Wren, Hermit Thrush, Cassin’s Finch and Pine Siskin. There are some great canyon-like portions of trail with big mossy rocks along the way. If you time things right, the monkeyflower will be in bloom. Just before Cobalt Lake are some of the most amazing meadows full of pink Lewis’ monkeyflower anywhere in the park. Forget birds and enjoy the flowers!
Cobalt Lake is a gorgeous spot. The lake is small and blue and is flanked by rock walls extending up toward Two Medicine Pass. Definitely spend some time relaxing along the shore. There is a fine “beach” and my kids often like to take a refreshing dip or just wade in the water. If you are lucky and quiet you might catch sight of a water shrew working the rocks along the shore. Water shrews are very small, brown, mouse-like mammals with a long pointy nose. They will dive under the water to go after insect nymphs and larvae like caddisflies and mayflies. You’ll see them dive under, swimming frantically to search along the bottom. Then, as soon as they stop swimming, the air bubbles trapped in their fur with bob them quickly to the surface.
If you camp at Cobalt Lake, listen for White-tailed Ptarmigan screaming at sundown and just before sunrise. They live in the moist spots with growing vegetation high above the lake.
If you have the time and energy, you need to continue up toward Two Medicine Pass. It’s worth the effort. This is a great, but vigorous, addition to your hike as it takes you up into the alpine. Along the way, you’ll see White-crowned, Fox and the Timberline Brewer’s Sparrow. The Timberline Brewer’s Sparrow has a very plain breast with light striping on the head. You’ll see Gray-crowned Rosy Finch and American Pipits up high. Also look and listen for White-tailed Ptarmigan and Rock Wren.
As you drive through the park on the east side, you'll enter the Reynolds Creek fire from 2015. This fire started near Reynolds Creek southeast of Jackson Glacier Overlook and quickly “blew up,” meaning that it expanded its size greatly due to bad fire weather conditions. This fire shut down the road for a few weeks in 2015 and made it impossible for me to reach my main White-tailed Ptarmigan study site at Logan Pass for a while. Why did the park service let this fire burn so long?
They didn't. You may have heard that the National Parks have a “let it burn” policy. It turns out that this is only remotely true – they only let fires burn if they are really, really remote. They have to be on the west side, far from life and property, and, generally high on a mountain so they can’t possibly go anywhere. The Reynolds Creek fire was seen from the Going-to-the-Sun road and was immediately decreed a “full suppression” fire. Often in this situation a team of Smoke Jumpers is called to parachute in and start suppression activities. In this case, the fire was moving too rapidly, so little could be done until the weather slowed the fire down over the next few days. It is not atypical for fire to be controlled more by weather than by humans - try as we might.
So, we might cry in frustration at the sight of all the dead trees, but the birds don’t. Specifically, Black-backed, Three-toed, Hairy, and other Woodpeckers, Mountain Bluebirds, and Gray Jays will appreciate the insect smorgasbord. You see, living trees have defenses against insects feeding on them. But, when they die, it’s free food for the insects. Then, of course, that’s free food for the birds. Hawk Owls are also known to use recent burns as nesting habitat. So, over the next few years, it will be really interesting to bird the St. Mary Falls trail, most of which was burned.
Top of page photo by Randy Patrick
David Benson Ph.D.
White-tailed Ptarmigan researcher and National Park Service Ranger Naturalist in GNP since 1995. "The Bird Ranger"